Using Auto-Save and Versions in OS X

Revert to Any Previously Saved Version of a Document

Versions Browser for OS X
Browsing document versions is similar to how you you browse Time Machine backups. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.
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Auto-Save and Versions have been part of OS X since the release of OS X Lion. These two features fundamentally changed how you work with documents on a Mac. In most cases, they free you from having to manually save a document as you work on it; they also allow you to return to or compare previous versions of a document.

Unfortunately, Apple didn't provide much information on how to use these new features; you may not even have noticed them.

In this guide, we'll look at how to use both Auto-Save and Versions to manage your documents and improve workflow.

Auto-Save

Auto-Save is a system-wide service that allows apps to automatically save the document you're working on; you don't need to issue a save command. Auto-Save monitors you as you work on a document. When you pause, it saves the document. If you work continuously, Auto-Save will perform a save every 5 minutes. That means you won't lose more than 5 minutes of work should something unexpected happen, such as a power outage or a cat taking a shortcut across your keyboard.

Auto-Save doesn't create a new document each time it performs a save. If it did, you might eventually run out of drive space. Instead, Auto-Save only saves the changes you make between each auto-save point in time.

The Auto-Save service is offered to any document-based app that saves files to the Mac. Although any app can take advantage of the service, there is no requirement that it do so.

Some major productivity apps, such as Microsoft Office, don't use Auto-Save; they use their own file management routines instead.

Versions

Versions works alongside Auto-Save to provide a way to access and compare previous versions of a document you're working on. In the past, many of us did something similar by using the Save As command to save a document with a different file name, such as Monthly Report 1, Monthly Report 2, etc.

This allowed us to make changes to a document without worrying about losing a possibly better version of it. Versions does something similar automatically; it lets you access and compare any version of a document you've created.

Versions creates a new version of a document every time you open it, every hour that you're working on it, and whenever you use a Save, Save Version, Duplicate, Lock, or Save As command. Auto-Save doesn't create new versions; it adds to the current version. This means you can't use Versions to see how the document looked 5 minutes ago, unless you had performed one of the trigger events listed above.

Using Auto-Save and Versions

Auto-Save and Versions are turned on by default in OS X Lion and later. You can't turn the functions off, but you do have control over how they work in individual documents.

For the examples in this guide, we're going to use the TextEdit app, which is included with OS X, and uses Auto-Save and Versions.

Before we begin, it's important to note that Apple made some slight changes in how Versions information is accessed. In OS X Lion and Mountain Lion, Versions information is accessed from an app's window title, also known as the proxy icon.

Next to the document name is a small chevron that, when clicked, reveals a menu that contains the Versions options for the selected document.

In OS X Mavericks and later, Apple moved most of the Versions menu items to the app's File menu, while leaving the Auto-Save Lock function within the document window's title.

We'll explore both variants of Versions in the example below:

  1. Launch TextEdit, located at /Applications.
  2. When TextEdit opens, select File, New to create a new document.
  3. Type a line or two of text in the document, and then select File, Save. Enter a name for the file, and click Save.
  4. The document window now shows the name of the document in the window title.
  1. Let the mouse pointer hover over the document's name in the window title. A small chevron will appear, indicating that the title is actually a drop-down menu.
  2. Click the title to see the available menu items, which include Lock, Duplicate, and Browse All Versions. There may be more menu items, but those three are the ones we're interested in right now.
  • Lock: Clicking the Lock item will lock the document, preventing any changes from occurring. You can't modify or save a locked document without first unlocking it. Locking a document not only prevents inadvertent changes, but also lets you use the document as a template, or as a starting point for a new document. We'll talk more about using documents as templates in a bit.
  • Unlock: This option only appears in the menu when a document has been locked. Click the Unlock menu item to remove the lock and allow full editing.
  • Duplicate: Located in either the document title's dropdown menu (OS X Lion and Mountain Lion), or in the app's File menu (OS X Mavericks and later). Clicking the Duplicate menu item creates a new copy of the document, and places it next to the original document. Creating a duplicate lets you use the original document as a template, or as a jumping-off point to create a whole new version. If the original document was locked, the duplicate is unlocked, ready for you to make changes. Any changes that you make to the duplicate won't affect the original. The duplicate is a new document, with its own save history and versions.
  • Revert to Last Saved (OS X Lion and Mountain Lion): If this option is available, it will include the time and date the last version was saved. Selecting this option will save your document's current state, and then restore the last saved version.
  • Revert to (OS X Mavericks and later): This option in the app's File menu allows you to access previous versions of the current document. See Browse All Versions, below, for details.
  • Browse All Versions: When you select this menu item, the display changes to show you a Time Machine-like view of all of the versions of the document. The current version is shown on the left; all other versions are shown on the right. You can select a version and compare it to the current document. The time and date of each version is shown in the timeline slider on the right, and just below the front most document. Clicking Done will return you to the current document; clicking Restore will take you back to the selected version.

By using the Auto-Save and Versions features, you can work with documents without worrying about accidentally changing a document, forgetting to save it, or experiencing a power outage.

One Last Tip

When using the Browse All Versions option, you can copy an element from any of the versions using the standard copy command. Simply click and drag to select the desired text, then right-click and select Copy from the pop-up menu. When you return to the standard editing window, you can paste the contents into the target location.